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Unit 3

The Universe of Obligation

Who are the people to whom I am obligated?

"It must be hard living in a country where the rich and powerful completely ignore the needs of the less fortunate."

Introduction: The Universe of Obligation

Essential Question Key Concepts

· Who are the people to whom I am obligated? · The universe of obligation · Ethical intuition · Diffusion of responsibility · Compassion fatigue

Every day we encounter numerous requests for help from people with different types and degrees of need, people with whom we have very different relationships. For example, we may receive an e-mail from a friend asking to sponsor her participation in a race to support cancer research, walk past a homeless person on the street asking for money and receive a mail solicitation from an international anti-poverty organization. This unit will help you explore the nature of your obligations to other people and your decision-making process for how and when to help. During this unit you'll be challenged to think critically about how you make decisions to help people, and whom you prioritize in making those decisions. How do factors such as relationship, geography, religion and need impact these decisions? Because people frequently make choices unconsciously about whom to help or not to help, this unit will help you become aware of and interrogate your ethical intuition. You'll learn about the concepts of diffusion of responsibility and compassion fatigue, factors that often prevent us from responding to need in the most effective way. Understanding these factors will help you increase your awareness of these and other forces in your own life, and make you more capable of navigating difficult moral choices. You'll encounter different models for navigating these choices, many of which are based on Jewish sources. As you explore these issues, we encourage you to think about how your experience of doing service in the Global South expands your universe of obligation.

Framing Questions

Do It Yourself

· To whom are we obligated? · How do we prioritize among the different people or groups of people to whom we are


· What factors contribute to our impulses to help or not help people in need? · How does increasing global interconnectedness -- through the media, travel

trade -- affect the dimensions of our universe of obligation?


· Constructing the universe of obligation: Volunteering far away from home highlights the

seemingly endless extent of need in the world. It is necessary, then, to prioritize about whom to help; the only question is whether we prioritize consciously or unconsciously. This activity will help you to make your "universe of obligation" more explicit. Bring

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Unit 3: the Universe of obligation


together a small group of international volunteers and lead them through this activity. You can also do it alone or with one other person. There are many criteria we could use when prioritizing whom to help, such as relationship (me my family my friends people I know people I don't know) or geography/proximity (my home my community my city my country the world). First, brainstorm as many different criteria for prioritizing a sense of obligation as you can. Then, keeping in mind that all of these criteria overlap (that is, none of us operates according to just one or two of them), jot down some notes for yourself about: 1. How does your universe of obligation currently function? 2. How would you ideally organize your universe of obligation? After everyone has had a chance to think this through, give each person a chance to share his/her answers to these two questions.

· Across the universe: It can be difficult to have substantive conversations about the

issues that come up during your volunteer placement with the people that you are close to at home. The Talmudic texts on pp. 3-1 and 3-2 (Bava Metzia 71a and Gittin 61a), which raise questions about who takes precedence when more people need help than we are actually able to assist, may be helpful in opening up these conversations. Add both texts to your blog (or, choose the one you find most interesting) along with the discussion questions below it and invite your readers to join you in a discussion about the texts. Consider adding thoughts, reactions and photographs that illustrate ways in which you've struggled with the tensions that these texts raise.


Unit 3: the Universe of obligation

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Table of Contents

TexT STudieS

Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 71a . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3-1 Babylonian Talmud Gittin 61a . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3-2 Aruch HaShulchan Yoreh Deah 251:4 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3-3 r abbi jonathan sacks, The Dignity of Difference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3-5 ian Parker , "The Gift" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3-6 a.M. rosenthal, Thirty-Eight Witnesses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3-7

Unit 3: The Universe of Obligation


Your Universe of Obligation. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3-8

reflecTion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3-9 SupplemenTary readingS

nicholas kristof, "Save The Darfur Puppy" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3-10 Peter singer , "The Singer Solution to World Poverty" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3-12

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Unit 3: the Universe of obligation


Text Study

Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 71a

BaBylonian Talmud Bava meTzia 71a R. Yosef taught: "If you lend money to any of my people that are poor with you" (Exodus 22:24): [This teaches, that if the choice lies between] a Jew and a non-Jew, the Jew has preference; the poor or the rich the poor takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town, your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town the poor of your own town have prior rights.

): ( .

Redacted around 500CE, the Babylonian Talmud is a record of about 300 years of extensive rabbinic discussion about the Mishnah. For a contemporary analogue, imagine 300 years' worth of transcribed Supreme Court hearings -- both courtroom legal debate and backroom discussion and storytelling. The tractate of Bava Metzia deals mainly with property law, including laws about guarding lost property or property belonging to someone else.

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1 The text lays out four binaries, four pairs of people who might be seeking economic

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aid. What are the four binaries and, in each case, which of the two people does the text privilege?

2 The text seems to provide a very clear set of rules for determining who should

be helped first in any given circumstance. What significant omission makes it less clear? [HINT: How would the text suggest you should decide between a Jewish out-of-towner and a non-Jewish neighbor, all else being equal?]

3 How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation? 4 How can this text be reconciled with the text from Gittin 61a (p. 3-2), if at all?

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Unit 3: the Universe of obligation


Text Study

Babylonian Talmud Gittin 61a

BaBylonian Talmud GiTTin 61a Our Rabbis taught: We sustain the non-Jewish poor with1 the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.

1. The word "with" in this text is ambiguous and open to interpretation. It could mean that we sustain and care for non-Jews together with Jews; in other words, at the same time and place, and in the same manner. Or, it could mean that we provide the care and sustenance separately but do so for both groups of people. The fact that Jewish law mandates the burial of Jews and non-Jews in separate cemeteries supports the reading that "with" means that we provide for both groups but in different ways or in separate places and times.

" .

Redacted around 500CE, the Babylonian Talmud is a record of about 300 years of extensive rabbinic discussion about the Mishnah. For a contemporary analogue, imagine 300 years' worth of transcribed Supreme Court hearings -- both courtroom legal debate and backroom discussion and storytelling. The tractate of Gittin deals mainly with the laws of divorce.

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1 How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation? 2 What might "for the sake of peace" mean? 3 How can this text be reconciled with the text from Bava Metzia 71a (p. 3-1),

Volunteer Summer participant with NGO, Pattanarak, Thailand. S Sweig

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if at all?


Unit 3: the Universe of obligation

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Text Study

Aruch Hashulchan Yoreh Deah 251:4

In the previous section the Aruch HaShulchan cited several legal rulings regarding tzedakah. These rulings suggest that (1) A person is only obligated to give tzedakah once s/he has acquired his/her livelihood, and (2) A person should prioritize his/her family members when allocating tzedakah.


aruch haShulchan yoreh deah 251:4 Now there is something fundamental about the details of the laws above that troubles me deeply. For if we explain the texts that I have cited according to their simple meaning -- that certain groups are prior to others -- they imply that one [may distribute the entirety of one's tzedakah money to one group within the established hierarchy and] need not give at all to those who fall outside of that particular group. But it is well known that every wealthy person has many more relatives who are poor, and how much more is that true for people whose tzedakah funds are scant! And if this is the case, poor people without wealthy relatives will die of starvation. Now how is it possible to say this? Therefore, in my humble opinion, the explanation of [tzedakah priorities] is as follows: Certainly every person, whether of modest or significant means, is obligated to give a portion of his [or her] tzedakah money to needy people who are not relatives. But to his [or her] poor relatives, he [or she] should give a greater amount than is given to those who are not related. And so on along the ladder of priorities.

This translation of the Aruch HaShulchan was provided by Rabbi David Rosenn, Founder and Executive Director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

. . . " " " " " " " . " " . . .

The Aruch HaShulchan is a legal work written at the turn of the 20th century by Yehiel Michael Epstein, rabbi of Novogrudok, Belorussia. It is a re-codification of the Shulchan Aruch (16th century Jewish legal code) that incorporates later commentaries on that work.

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1 What does the author of this text claim "troubles [him] deeply" about the positions

Okra seller, Ghana. P Schnurman

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he cites? What does he propose as an alternate reading of the law?

2 How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation? 3 What advantages does the author's interpretation offer and what problems does

it fail to address?

4 How well does it reflect the way you behave intuitively?


Unit 3: the Universe of obligation

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Text Study Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Dignity of Difference

DAViD hume noteD that our sense of empathy diminishes as we move outward from the members of our family to our neighbors, our society and the world. Traditionally, our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them. What has changed is that television and the Internet have effectively abolished distance. They have brought images of suffering in far-off lands into our immediate

experience. Our sense of compassion for the victims of poverty, war and famine, runs ahead of our capacity to act. Our moral sense is simultaneously activated and frustrated. We feel that something should be done, but what, how, and by whom?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, p. 30. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948-) is the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom's main body of Orthodox synagogues. His book, The Dignity of Difference, led a group of rabbis to accuse him of heresy against Orthodox Judaism for implying that Judaism is not the absolute truth. In 2004, the book was awarded the Grawemeyer Award for Religion.

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1 How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation? 2 Do you agree with Sacks that media exposure to people suffering far away has

Sike Women Development Association members stand beside their crops, Ethiopia. M Morarji

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increased your feeling of empathy and/or compassion for those people?

3 What are some advantages and disadvantages of our greater exposure to

distant suffering?

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Unit 3: the Universe of obligation


Text Study Ian Parker

The Gift

ChuCk Collins, A great-grandson of Oscar Mayer, is a rare nonfictional example of someone who gave away all his assets during his lifetime -- a halfmillion-dollar inheritance, which he donated to charity nearly twenty years ago. He became used to hearing pleas in behalf of his (then only potential) offspring. "People would say, `That's fine, you can be reckless in your own life, but you shouldn't do that to your

children,' " Collins told me. "But I think parents make decisions for their kids all the time -- that's what parenting is." He now has a daughter, who does not live like a Jellyby.1 "Of course, we have to respond to our immediate family, but, once they're O.K., we need to expand the circle. A larger sense of family is a radical idea, but we get into trouble as a society when we don't see that we're in the same boat."

1. Jellyby: In Charles Dickens' novel Bleak House, Mrs. Jellyby neglects her children while devoting herself to a series of public causes, abandoning the cause of the day when a new one catches her attention.

Ian Parker, "The Gift," The New Yorker, August 2, 2004. Ian Parker (contemporary) is a British writer who lives in New York and contributes to The

New Yorker. "The Gift" is a profile of Zell Kravinsky, an American real estate developer who has donated most of his wealth to charity. In 2005 "The Gift" won an Ellie award for excellence in profile writing.

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1 How does this text define and shape the universe of obligation? 2 What are the benefits and challenges of this model? 3 Do you think parents have a greater obligation to their own children than to other

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Unit 3: the Universe of obligation

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Text Study A. M. Rosenthal

Thirty-Eight Witnesses

Are the people who turned away that one night in Queens [when Kitty Genovese was murdered], each in a separate decision, any more immoral or indecent or cowardly because there happened to be thirtyeight, than if there were just one of them? Does God judge by the individual or by head count? And what if we hear the scream but cannot see the screamer? Of all questions about silent witnesses, to me this is the most important. Suppose the screamer is not downstairs but around the corner. Surely somebody else is closer, so we don't have to run out, do we? What is the accepted distance for hearing but not moving -- two flights down, five, one block, two blocks, three? Suppose you know people screaming under persecution -- not discrimination but persecution, as in imprisonment, torture, cells -- for their politics or their religion. You have seen the smuggled pictures of bodies after the rack, you have heard from those who have escaped: your own government reports their existence in the Chinese gulag, the Laogai. You know they scream, but they are not within sight and you cannot

reach out and touch them, nor are you allowed to visit them. But the screams are piercing. How far away do you have to be to forgive yourself for not doing whatever is in your power to do: stop doing business with the torturer, or just speak up for them, write a letter, join a human rights group, go to church and pray for the rescue of the persecuted and the damnation of the persecutors, give money, do something. Three stories up, a thousand miles, ten thousand miles, from here to Austin Street, or from here to the gulags or the dungeons for political and religious prisoners anywhere? How far is silence from a place of safety acceptable without detesting yourself as we detest the 38? Tell me, what question is more important than the one Catherine Genovese put to me for years when I sat down to write my columns for the Times -- how far?

A.M. Rosenthal, Thirty-Eight Witnesses, 1964, pp. xxvii-xxix. This text comes from the Introduction to the paperback edition of the book Thirty-Eight Witnesses, A.M. Rosenthal's meditation on the meaning of the Kitty Genovese murder and her neighbors' failure to help her. Rosenthal (1922-2006) covered the story for The New York Times and later became the executive editor of the paper.

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1 How does this text define or shape the universe of obligation? 2 What phenomena might explain the 38 witnesses' reluctance to intervene? 3 What is an example of an instance in your own life in which you have failed to

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intervene when you knew you ought to? How does Rosenthal's writing affect your perspective on that event, if at all?

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Unit 3: the Universe of obligation



Your Universe of Obligation

Part 1 Draw or describe how you currently organize your universe of obligation.

Part II Draw or describe how you would ideally envision your universe of obligation.

What is one concrete change in behavior that you could make to move you closer to your ideal universe of obligation?


Unit 3: the Universe of obligation

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The Universe of Obligation

Please spend a few minutes responding in writing to one of the prompts below. If you prefer, you may also write about a topic of your choice related to this unit.

1 I am most likely to respond to situations of injustice or need when . . . 2 I am least likely to respond to situations of injustice or need when . . . 3 The people I feel most obligated to help are . . . because . . . 4 The learning I've done in this unit has informed my sense of myself as a

Jew by . . .

5 The learning I've done in this unit will affect the way I live my life by . . .

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Unit 3: the Universe of obligation


Supplementary Reading Nicholas Kristof

save the Darfur Puppy

FinAlly, we're beginning to understand what it would take to galvanize President Bush, other leaders and the American public to respond to the genocide in Sudan: a suffering puppy with big eyes and floppy ears. That's the implication of a series of studies by psychologists trying to understand why people -- good, conscientious people -- aren't moved by genocide or famines. Time and again, we've seen that the human conscience just isn't pricked by mass suffering, while an individual child (or puppy) in distress causes our hearts to flutter. In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary citizens to contribute $5 to alleviate hunger abroad. In one version, the money would go to a particular girl, Rokia, a 7-year-old in Mali; in another, to 21 million hungry Africans; in a third, to Rokia -- but she was presented as a victim of a larger tapestry of global hunger. Not surprisingly, people were less likely to give to anonymous millions than to Rokia. But they were also less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia's suffering was presented as part of a broader pattern. Evidence is overwhelming that humans respond to the suffering of individuals rather than groups. Think of the toddler Jessica McClure falling down a well in 1987, or the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932 (which Mencken described as the "the biggest story since the Resurrection").

Even the right animal evokes a similar sympathy. A dog stranded on a ship aroused so much pity that $48,000 in private money was spent trying to rescue it -- and that was before the Coast Guard stepped in. And after I began visiting Darfur in 2004, I was flummoxed by the public's passion to save a redtailed hawk, Pale Male, that had been evicted from his nest on Fifth Avenue in New York City. A single homeless hawk aroused more indignation than two million homeless Sudanese. Advocates for the poor often note that 30,000 children die daily of the consequences of poverty -- presuming that this number will shock people into action. But the opposite is true: the more victims, the less compassion. In one experiment, people in one group could donate to a $300,000 fund for medical treatments that would save the life of one child -- or, in another group, the lives of eight children. People donated more than twice as much money to help save one child as to help save eight. Likewise, remember how people were asked to save Rokia from starvation? A follow-up allowed students to donate to Rokia or to a hungry boy named Moussa. Both Rokia and Moussa attracted donations in the same proportions. Then another group was asked to donate to Rokia and Moussa together. But donors felt less good about supporting two children, and contributions dropped off. "Our capacity to feel is limited," Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon writes in a new journal article, "Psychic Numbing and Genocide," which discusses these


Unit 3: the Universe of obligation

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experiments. Professor Slovic argues that we cannot depend on the innate morality even of good people. Instead, he believes, we need to develop legal or political mechanisms to force our hands to confront genocide. So, yes, we should develop early-warning systems for genocide, prepare an African Union, U.N. and NATO rapid-response capability, and polish the "responsibility to protect" as a legal basis to stop atrocities. (The Genocide Intervention Network and the Enough project are working on these things.) But, frankly, after four years of watching the U.N. Security Council, the International Criminal Court and the Genocide Convention accomplish little in Darfur, I'm skeptical that either human rationality or international law can achieve much unless backed by a public outcry. One experiment underscored the limits of rationality. People prepared to donate to the needy were first asked either to talk about babies (to prime the emotions) or to perform math calculations (to prime their rational side). Those who did math donated less.

So maybe what we need isn't better laws but more troubled consciences -- pricked, perhaps, by a Darfur puppy with big eyes and floppy ears. Once we find such a soulful dog in peril, we should call ABC News. ABC's news judgment can be assessed by the 11 minutes of evening news coverage it gave to Darfur's genocide during all of last year -- compared with 23 minutes for the false confession in the JonBenet Ramsey case. If President Bush and the global public alike are unmoved by the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of fellow humans, maybe our last, best hope is that we can be galvanized by a puppy in distress.

Nicholas Kristof, "Save the Darfur Puppy," The New York Times, May 10, 2007. Nicholas Kristof (1959-) is a columnist for The New York Times. Kristof advocates greater international intervention to stop atrocities (e.g. the genocide in Darfur). In 2006, Kristof won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary "for his graphic, deeply reported columns that, at personal risk, focused attention on genocide in Darfur and that gave voice to the voiceless in other parts of the world." Kristof was honored at an AJWS event in December 2005 for his courageous efforts to publicize the genocide in Darfur.

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1 Summarize the essence of Kristof's argument. Why do you think people act

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this way?

2 How do organizations that work on large-scale tragedies try to side-step the

problem that Kristof identifies? What do you think of their methods?

3 What are some examples from your own life in which Kristof's argument plays

out? Can you think of any ways you might respond to those situations differently in the future?

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Unit 3: the Universe of obligation


Supplementary Reading Peter Singer

The singer solution to World Poverty

The Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who later this month begins teaching at Princeton University, is perhaps the world's most controversial ethicist. Many readers of his book Animal Liberation were moved to embrace vegetarianism, while others recoiled at Singer's attempt to place humans and animals on an even moral plane. Similarly, his argument that severely disabled infants should, in some cases, receive euthanasia has been praised as courageous by some -- and denounced by others, including anti-abortion activists, who have protested Singer's Princeton appointment. Singer's penchant for provocation extends to more mundane matters, like everyday charity. A recent article about Singer in The New York Times revealed that the philosopher gives one-fifth of his income to famine-relief agencies. "From when I first saw pictures in newspapers of people starving, from when people asked you to donate some of your pocket money for collections at school," he mused, "I always thought, `Why that much -- why not more?"' Is it possible to quantify our charitable burden? In the following essay, Singer offers some unconventional thoughts about the ordinary American's obligations to the world's poor and suggests that even his own one-fifth standard may not be enough.

in the BrAziliAn Film "CentrAl Station," Dora is a retired schoolteacher who makes ends meet by sitting at the station writing letters for illiterate people. Suddenly she has an opportunity to pocket $1,000. All she has to do is persuade a homeless 9-year-old boy to follow her to an address she has been given. (She is told he will be adopted by wealthy foreigners.) She delivers the boy, gets the money, spends some of it on a television set and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition. Her neighbor spoils the fun, however, by telling her that the boy was too old to be adopted -- he will be killed and his organs sold for transplantation. Perhaps Dora knew this all along, but after her neighbor's plain speaking, she spends a troubled night. In the morning Dora resolves to take the boy back. Suppose Dora had told her neighbor that it is a tough world, other people have nice new TV's too, and if selling the kid is the only way she can get one, well, he was only a street kid. She would then have become, in the eyes of the audience,

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a monster. She redeems herself only by being prepared to bear considerable risks to save the boy. At the end of the movie, in cinemas in the affluent nations of the world, people who would have been quick to condemn Dora if she had not rescued the boy go home to places far more comfortable than her apartment. In fact, the average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its income on things that are no more necessary to them than Dora's new TV was to her. Going out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones are no longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts -- so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need. All of which raises a question: In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who

already has a TV and upgrades to a better one -- knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need? Of course, there are several differences between the two situations that could support different moral judgments about them. For one thing, to be able to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet. Yet for a utilitarian philosopher like myself -- that is, one who judges whether acts are right or wrong by their consequences -- if the upshot of the American's failure to donate the money is that one more kid dies on the streets of a Brazilian city, then it is, in some sense, just as bad as selling the kid to the organ peddlers. But one doesn't need to embrace my utilitarian ethic to see that, at the very least, there is a troubling incongruity in being so quick to condemn Dora for taking the child to the organ peddlers while, at the same time, not regarding the American consumer's behavior as raising a serious moral issue. In his 1996 book, Living High and Letting Die, the New York University philosopher Peter Unger presented an ingenious series of imaginary examples designed to probe our intuitions about whether it is wrong to live well without giving substantial amounts of money to help people who are hungry, malnourished or dying from easily treatable illnesses like diarrhea. Here's my paraphrase of one of these examples: Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the

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pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed -- but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents. Bob's conduct, most of us will immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the lives of children. We can give to organizations like Unicef or Oxfam America. How much would we have to give one of these organizations to have a high probability of saving the life of a child threatened by easily preventable diseases? (I do not believe that children are more worth saving than adults, but since no one can argue that children have brought their poverty on themselves, focusing on them simplifies the issues.) Unger called up some experts and used the information they provided to offer some plausible estimates that include the cost of raising money, administrative expenses and the cost of delivering aid where it is most needed. By his calculation, $200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old

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transform into a healthy 6-year-old -- offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years. To show how practical philosophical argument can be, Unger even tells his readers that they can easily donate funds by using their credit card and calling one of these toll-free numbers: (800) 367-5437 for Unicef; (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam America. Now you, too, have the information you need to save a child's life. How should you judge yourself if you don't do it? Think again about Bob and his Bugatti. Unlike Dora, Bob did not have to look into the eyes of the child he was sacrificing for his own material comfort. The child was a complete stranger to him and too far away to relate to in an intimate, personal way. Unlike Dora, too, he did not mislead the child or initiate the chain of events imperiling him. In all these respects, Bob's situation resembles that of people able but unwilling to donate to overseas aid and differs from Dora's situation.

If you still think that it was very wrong of Bob not to throw the switch that would have diverted the train and saved the child's life, then it is hard to see how you could deny that it is also very wrong not to send money to one of the organizations listed above. Unless, that is, there is some morally important difference between the two situations that I have overlooked. Is it the practical uncertainties about whether aid will really reach the people who need it? Nobody who knows the world of overseas aid can doubt that such uncertainties exist. But Unger's figure of $200 to save a child's life was reached after he had made conservative assumptions about the proportion of the money donated that will actually reach its target. One genuine difference between Bob and those who can afford to donate to overseas aid organizations but don't is that only Bob can save the child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of

Grandmother and granddaughter, Pro-link, Ghana. L Vaisben


Unit 3: the Universe of obligation

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millions of people who can give $200 to overseas aid organizations. The problem is that most of them aren't doing it. Does this mean that it is all right for you not to do it? Suppose that there were more owners of priceless vintage cars -- Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy -- all in exactly the same situation as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the child in order to preserve their own cherished car. Would that make it all right for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-thecrowd ethics -- the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not excuse them because others were behaving no better. We seem to lack a sound basis for drawing a clear moral line between Bob's situation and that of any reader of this article with $200 to spare who does not donate it to an overseas aid agency. These readers seem to be acting at least as badly as Bob was acting when he chose to let the runaway train hurtle toward the unsuspecting child. In the light of this conclusion, I trust that many readers will reach for the phone and donate that $200. Perhaps you should do it before reading further. Now that you have distinguished yourself morally from people who put their vintage cars ahead of a child's life, how about treating yourself and your partner to dinner at your favorite restaurant? But wait. The money you will spend at the restaurant could also help save the lives of children overseas! True, you weren't planning to blow $200 tonight, but if you were to give up dining out just for one month, you would easily save that amount. And what is one month's dining out, compared to a child's life?

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There's the rub. Since there are a lot of desperately needy children in the world, there will always be another child whose life you could save for another $200. Are you therefore obliged to keep giving until you have nothing left? At what point can you stop? Hypothetical examples can easily become farcical. Consider Bob. How far past losing the Bugatti should he go? Imagine that Bob had got his foot stuck in the track of the siding, and if he diverted the train, then before it rammed the car it would also amputate his big toe. Should he still throw the switch? What if it would amputate his foot? His entire leg? As absurd as the Bugatti scenario gets when pushed to extremes, the point it raises is a serious one: only when the sacrifices become very significant indeed would most people be prepared to say that Bob does nothing wrong when he decides not to throw the switch. Of course, most people could be wrong; we can't decide moral issues by taking opinion polls. But consider for yourself the level of sacrifice that you would demand of Bob, and then think about how much money you would have to give away in order to make a sacrifice that is roughly equal to that. It's almost certainly much, much more than $200. For most middle-class Americans, it could easily be more like $200,000. Isn't it counterproductive to ask people to do so much? Don't we run the risk that many will shrug their shoulders and say that morality, so conceived, is fine for saints but not for them? I accept that we are unlikely to see, in the near or even medium-term future, a world in which it is normal for wealthy Americans to give the bulk of their wealth to strangers. When it comes to praising or blaming people for what they do, we

Unit 3: the Universe of obligation 3-15

tend to use a standard that is relative to some conception of normal behavior. Comfortably off Americans who give, say, 10 percent of their income to overseas aid organizations are so far ahead of most of their equally comfortable fellow citizens that I wouldn't go out of my way to chastise them for not doing more. Nevertheless, they should be doing much more, and they are in no position to criticize Bob for failing to make the much greater sacrifice of his Bugatti. At this point various objections may crop up. Someone may say: "If every citizen living in the affluent nations contributed his or her share I wouldn't have to make such a drastic sacrifice, because long before such levels were reached, the resources would have been there to save the lives of all those children dying from lack of food or medical care. So why should I give more than my fair share?" Another, related, objection is that the Government ought to increase its overseas aid allocations, since that would spread the burden more equitably across all taxpayers. Yet the question of how much we ought to give is a matter to be decided in the real world -- and that, sadly, is a world in which we know that most people do not, and in the immediate future will not, give substantial amounts to overseas aid agencies. We know, too, that at least in the next year, the United States Government is not going to meet even the very modest United Nationsrecommended target of 0.7 percent of gross national product; at the moment it lags far below that, at 0.09 percent, not even half of Japan's 0.22 percent or a tenth of Denmark's 0.97 percent. Thus, we know that the money we can give beyond that theoretical "fair share" is still going to save lives that would otherwise be lost. While the idea that

3-16 Unit 3: the Universe of obligation

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no one need do more than his or her fair share is a powerful one, should it prevail if we know that others are not doing their fair share and that children will die preventable deaths unless we do more than our fair share? That would be taking fairness too far. Thus, this ground for limiting how much we ought to give also fails. In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That's right: I'm saying that you shouldn't buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children's lives. So how does my philosophy break down in dollars and cents? An American household with an income of $50,000 spends around $30,000 annually on necessities, according to the Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization. Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000 a year, donations to help the world's poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for necessities holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you're spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away. Now, evolutionary psychologists tell us that human nature just isn't sufficiently altruistic to make it plausible that many people will sacrifice so much for strangers. On the facts of human nature, they might be right, but they would be wrong to draw a moral conclusion from those facts. If it is the case that we ought to do things that, predictably, most of us

won't do, then let's face that fact head-on. Then, if we value the life of a child more than going to fancy restaurants, the next time we dine out we will know that we could have done something better with our money. If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are. If we don't do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent life -- not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward heading in that direction. When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.

Peter Singer, "The Singer Solution to World Poverty," The New York Times Magazine, September 5, 1999. Peter Singer (1946-) is an Australian philosopher. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics

at Princeton University and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne. Singer's utilitarian philosophy is based on the principle of "equal consideration of interests," which, instead of dictating equal treatment for all people, recognizes that different interests warrant different treatment. The fundamental interest that entitles a being to equal consideration is the capacity for "suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness." Singer is best known for his positions on three distinct issues. First, he is a strong advocate of animal rights, arguing in his book Animal Liberation that the interests of all beings capable of suffering are worthy of equal consideration, and that giving lesser consideration to beings based on their having wings or fur is no more justified than discrimination based on skin color. Second, he has been strongly criticized for making an argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness, based on the notion of allowing as many individuals as possible to fulfill as many of their preferences as possible. Third, in regards to global poverty, he argues that affluent people in the West have an absolute obligation to sacrifice some or most of their wealth to save the lives of poor people in the Global South and that anyone living in comfort while others starve is perpetrating a morally indefensible act.

CU DIs ss


1 How would Singer describe the universe of obligation? 2 In the margins of this article or on a separate page, identify Singer's arguments,

On sTI s

the counterarguments he presents and his responses to the counterarguments. Critique his arguments' strengths and weaknesses.

3 Given that Singer proposes an extremely demanding obligation, can you identify

a middle-ground position that responds to his perspective but seems humanly possible? What might that position look like in your life?

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Unit 3: the Universe of obligation



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